ED­U­CA­TION: Teach­ing con­sent.

While there is grow­ing sup­port for teach­ing chil­dren about phys­i­cal in­ti­macy and con­sent, writes Cat Rodie, some ed­u­ca­tors want it dis­cussed at school, while oth­ers think it best left to par­ents.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Cat Rodie

A group of preschool­ers sit in a cir­cle on a car­peted floor while an ed­u­ca­tor passes round a soft toy oc­to­pus named Hugsta­pus. With an an­i­mated voice (be­long­ing to the ed­u­ca­tor) Hugsta­pus asks each child in the cir­cle if they would like a hug. Some of the chil­dren nod shyly be­fore tak­ing the toy for a hug, oth­ers shake their heads, “No.”

It might sound like a cute game, but there is a much deeper mes­sage at play. This is con­sent ed­u­ca­tion – the chil­dren are be­ing taught about their bod­ily au­ton­omy and how to read each other’s body lan­guage.

Deanne Car­son is a co-founder of Body Safety Aus­tralia, a lead­ing voice in ev­i­dence-based body safety and con­sent ed­u­ca­tion for chil­dren from three years old. In her five years of run­ning the classes, Car­son has made some star­tling ob­ser­va­tions about the dif­fer­ent ways chil­dren, teens and young adults see con­sent. “Kinder­garten chil­dren know that their body be­longs to them and they don’t have to kiss or hug if they don’t want to. They know who they can talk to if they are hurt, and when we prac­tise say­ing, ‘Stop, I don’t like it!’ they raise the roof,” Car­son says.

How­ever, by Year 4, kids are much less will­ing to speak out when their per­sonal space is com­pro­mised. “Ten-year-olds know their bod­ies are their own but they don’t say ‘stop’ when we role-play in­trud­ing on their per­sonal space,” Car­son says. “They tell me this is be­cause they’re afraid of hurt­ing their friends’ feel­ings, of mak­ing a fuss, of los­ing so­cial stand­ing, and other things they find hard to ar­tic­u­late.”

Last Au­gust, the Aus­tralian Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion re­leased a dis­turb­ing re­port on sex­ual as­saults on univer­sity cam­puses around the coun­try. The re­port found that as many as one in five stu­dents had been sex­u­ally ha­rassed in a univer­sity set­ting and that women were three times as likely as men to have been sex­u­ally as­saulted.

Hav­ing un­cov­ered the scale of the is­sue, the re­port rec­om­mended that con­sent ed­u­ca­tion be taught on cam­pus. But ed­u­ca­tors such as Deanne Car­son say leav­ing con­sent ed­u­ca­tion un­til univer­sity isn’t good enough. The ev­i­dence sug­gests she is right.

Last year, Bri­tain’s par­lia­men­tary Women and Equal­i­ties Com­mit­tee found that one-third of 16- to 18-year-old girls have ex­pe­ri­enced un­wanted sex­ual touch­ing at school, while nearly three-quar­ters of all

16- to 18-year-old boys and girls say they hear terms such as “slut” or “slag” used to­wards girls on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. In ad­di­tion, a stag­ger­ing 59 per cent of girls and young women aged 13 to 21 said they had faced some form of sex­ual ha­rass­ment at school or col­lege in the past year.

In part, the #MeToo cam­paign has given faces and names to these star­tling sta­tis­tics. Car­son says one of the pos­i­tive side ef­fects of the cam­paign has been a will­ing­ness in more con­ser­va­tive or main­stream en­vi­ron­ments to ac­cept con­sent ed­u­ca­tion. De­spite this, there are al­ways some peo­ple who are quick to dis­miss it as po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. “Un­for­tu­nately there is a lot of mis­in­for­ma­tion about re­la­tion­ship and sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion on so­cial me­dia at the mo­ment,” she says.

Car­son has been able to ad­dress con­cerns through pre­lim­i­nary par­ent work­shops. “We some­times have par­ents who think we are giv­ing chil­dren too many rights or sex­u­al­is­ing them by teach­ing them to use ac­cu­rate names for gen­i­tals. But most par­ents are very sup­port­ive of their chil­dren’s right to bod­ily au­ton­omy and un­der­stand that con­sent ed­u­ca­tion doesn’t start with con­ver­sa­tions about sex,” she says.

Justin Coul­son is a psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor of the book 9 Ways to a Re­silient Child. He is also the fa­ther of six girls. Coul­son agrees that con­sent ed­u­ca­tion is ex­tremely im­por­tant – how­ever, he thinks the re­spon­si­bil­ity to de­liver these crit­i­cal mes­sages lies with par­ents.

“This is a par­ent’s re­spon­si­bil­ity, plain and sim­ple,” he says. “As par­ents, we have got to have con­ver­sa­tions about con­sent, re­spect and in­ti­macy. And we have got to stop sep­a­rat­ing phys­i­cal and emo­tional in­ti­macy. When we fail in this, we pro­vide fer­tile soil for sex­ual mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion and sex­ual co­er­cion.”

In prac­tice, Coul­son sug­gests that par­ents should start hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions about con­sent be­fore their chil­dren turn two. “They won’t un­der­stand a word you say, but it will give you prac­tice work­ing out what you need to tell them,” he says.

Coul­son notes that par­ents need to take an ac­tive role in teach­ing their chil­dren about their body, their “pri­vate parts” and their per­sonal space from a young age. “Help them know that no one should ever touch their pri­vate body parts (or mouth), ex­cept a par­ent while they’re be­ing bathed or at the doc­tor’s with a par­ent present,” he says.

Cru­cially, he says that as chil­dren grow older, the con­ver­sa­tions need to evolve and in­clude sex­ual ac­tiv­ity. “Change the con­ver­sa­tion to ideas around ‘be­ing ready’ to be in­ti­mate, the dif­fer­ent steps and stages, and how im­por­tant it is that they are clear around what per­mis­sion is given, and re­spect­ing de­ci­sions of their part­ner.”

At present, though, for myr­iad rea­sons many par­ents aren’t fol­low­ing Coul­son’s ad­vice. This is why Les­ley-Anne Ey, a lec­turer in child de­vel­op­ment, ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­ogy and child pro­tec­tion at the Univer­sity of South Aus­tralia, is ve­he­ment in her po­si­tion that the re­spon­si­bil­ity for con­sent ed­u­ca­tion largely lies with schools, not par­ents. “You can’t force par­ents to ed­u­cate their kids,” she says. “If we leave it to par­ents alone, then we are leav­ing huge swaths of the pop­u­la­tion vul­ner­a­ble.

“[Teach­ers] are in the best po­si­tion to de­liver [con­sent ed­u­ca­tion] be­cause they have ac­cess to all chil­dren,” Ey says.

For re­search pub­lished in the jour­nal Sex Ed­u­ca­tion, Ey in­ter­viewed more than 100 teach­ers from gov­ern­ment, in­de­pen­dent and Catholic pri­mary schools across Aus­tralia about their ex­pe­ri­ences with chil­dren’s prob­lem­atic sex­ual be­hav­iours and their man­age­ment strate­gies in schools.

Ey found that 40 per cent of teach­ers re­ported wit­ness­ing prob­lem­atic sex­ual be­hav­iour such as sim­u­lated in­ter­course and at­tempts to co­erce other stu­dents into sex­ual con­tact. Oth­ers spoke about chil­dren tak­ing part in oral sex and, per­haps most alarm­ingly, one teacher spoke about a Year 4 stu­dent who had threat­ened to rape other stu­dents.

When it came to teach­ers han­dling this be­hav­iour, Ey found that although teach­ers were clear about their manda­tory re­port­ing re­quire­ments, there was a gap when it came to pre­ven­tive mea­sures such as con­sent ed­u­ca­tion. And while many teach­ers were will­ing to ed­u­cate chil­dren about con­sent, they were not equipped with the skills nec­es­sary to lead the con­ver­sa­tion. “Teach­ers are all call­ing out for more re­sources and more train­ing in this space,” she says.

Nat­u­rally, there are teach­ers who are re­sis­tant to teach­ing chil­dren about con­sent and bod­ily au­ton­omy. Some­times this is sim­ply be­cause it’s an un­com­fort­able topic, but Ey has also en­coun­tered re­sis­tance from those who think sex ed­u­ca­tion can do more harm than good. “I can un­der­stand some of the fears teach­ers have around teach­ing these sen­si­tive top­ics,” she says, “how­ever, I think if they are ad­e­quately trained they will feel more con­fi­dent.”

Some schools have filled the skill gap by out­sourc­ing con­sent ed­u­ca­tion to an or­gan­i­sa­tion such as Body Safety Aus­tralia. But Ey says that this shouldn’t “let teach­ers off the hook”.

“Teach­ers still need to be in­volved in the de­liv­ery of the pro­gram, so that they can man­age any is­sues that may come up af­ter­wards. There has to be an on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tion,” she says.

Deanne Car­son agrees and adds that con­sent ed­u­ca­tion should be a part­ner­ship between schools and par­ents. “Par­ents can be mod­el­ling con­sent from birth and hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions about con­sent from preschool ages. And by teach­ing con­sent at schools, we en­sure that all stu­dents have a chance to hear their rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties when it comes to touch,” she says.

“We need young peo­ple to have a re­ally clear un­der­stand­ing of their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to­wards each other be­fore they start to ex­plore sex and re­la­tion­ships. We give them clear in­struc­tions on driv­ing safely be­fore they get their li­cence – why wouldn’t we equip them with the same knowl­edge when it comes to sex be­fore they be­come sex­u­ally ac­tive?”

CAT RODIE is a Syd­ney­based jour­nal­ist.

Body Safety Aus­tralia co­founder Whit­ney Yip teach­ing chil­dren at an early learn­ing cen­tre.

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